Swiss vote on whether to cut back army

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The Independent Online

Swiss voters were today nearing a decision on whether to slash support for their long-cherished army in an era of peace in the European heartland.

Swiss voters were today nearing a decision on whether to slash support for their long-cherished army in an era of peace in the European heartland.

A citizen proposal to cut the defence budget and spend the savings on civilian needs came in a referendum, part of the Swiss tradition of keeping close control of government.

Polls predict voters will reject the proposal just as they did the more radical plan to scrap the army altogether in 1989.

With part-time military service required for each Swiss man, the country has long prided itself on its militia system that stands ready to defend the Alpine homeland.

But left-wing and humanitarian critics of the military maintain that it should be reduced in size because it is costing too much money when there is no obvious threat to Switzerland.

They counter the deeply embedded tradition of bankers, farmers and watchmakers undergoing basic training and then keeping their weapons and uniforms at home, ready for periodic courses and even instant mobilisation.

The proposed changes would cut about $1bn from the annual defense budget to leave it at 3.1 billion francs ($1.74bn) by 2010.

Backers of the citizens' initiative maintain that the end of the Cold War eliminated the need for large-scale forces with fighter planes, tanks and artillery.

The Socialist Party, which collected the 100,000 signatures needed to force the referendum, claims that Swiss military spending has failed to keep pace with the worldwide decline over the past decade.

The Swiss government disputes this and cites recent conflicts in the Balkans as a warning to keep up the guard because they were uncomfortably close to Switzerland.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that Swiss per capita defense spending in 1997 was $544 - above the NATO average of $433, but well below the U.S. figure of $1,018.

Switzerland, a nation of 7m people, has 390,000 reserve soldiers who undergo 15 weeks of basic training followed by regular two- to three-week training sessions. Retired soldiers get to keep their rifles.

The government has its own plans to shorten the reserve commitment, but would spend most of the savings on new equipment and technology.

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